The scourge of Apple scab is back to haunt the state of Himachal Pradesh. However, is it because of natural reasons or are there other potent reasons which have precipitated it to the level of an epidemic?
The disease was first seen in1982 after it hit the apple crop, and according to the Mashobra Disease Forecasting Centre Shimla, which has an accuracy level of 98.64% for detecting apple scab, the disease may soon assume gigantic proportions. The forecasting centre indicates that “this year(2019-2020) the weather conditions may favour the fungus, however these sequential changes may turn into an epidemic in next few years.”
This year had a relatively wet spring and summer between the months of March and May. Winter snow also helped the fungus to mature during the overwintering inoculums in defoliated leaves in 2019. This combination of winter and spring, the scientists believe, in a situation similar to that in 1982-83, the year the epidemic first hit Himachal, has brought apple scab back to the state.
What is Apple Scab?
Apple scab is a fungal disease caused by a fungus called Venturia inaequalis, which spends winters mainly on fallen leaves on the orchard floor. During spring, the fungus produces spores called ascospores. After the deposition of these spores on the leaves or on the fruit surface, the ascospores germinate in film moisture. The minimum wet period needed for infection is nine hours at 17 degrees centigrade. Once the infection has occurred, the fungus produces conidiospores and conidia. Sporulating lesions become visible between approximately nine to seventeen days after the infection, depending upon the temperature, leaf moisture and relative humidity. The minimum humidity required is between 60% to 70%. Upon sporulation, conidia are dispersed to leaves and fruits by wind and splashing rain and by other mechanical methods. The scab symptoms appear on leaves, petioles, fruits and twigs. It destroys the leaves and the fruits by scab lesions. The fruits are left moribund and cracks appear on them, resulting in them becoming worthless and causing a major loss to the farmers.
The apple economy in Himachal Pradesh (HP) is worth about Rs 5,000 crore, and serves as a major source of livelihood to a large section of the peasantry. According to the economic survey 2019-20 passed in the HP Vidhan Sabha: “Apple is the most important fruit crop of HP, which constitutes about 49% of the total area under fruit crops and about 74% of the total fruit production. Area under apple has increased from 400 hectares in 1950-51 to 113,145 hectares in 2018-19.” Damage to apple crops means damage to a large section of the people. Apples are widely harvested in five districts of the state.
Major Reasons for the Outbreak
As mentioned earlier, one of the foremost reasons is natural, and pertains to a prolonged spell of rains during the spring and summer months in the state. However, there are other equally important reasons. Apple Scab has affected almost 60% of the orchards in the state, according to Dr. Onkar Shad, a former botanist who is now a farmer and a leader of the state’s Kisan Sabha.
Professor Vijay Singh Thakur, former vice-chancellor of the Dr. Yashwant Singh Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, Nauni, pointed out that a new generation of farmers were unaware of the scab epidemic in the early 1980s. When confronted with the disease in their orchards, this generation could not identify what it was at the inception and hence did not resort to the proper protocol of sprays, which could have helped minimise their loss. A delayed or untimely response of spraying fungicide on the scab proves detrimental to the crop. The pathogens do not just stay in the infected orchard, but also spread to the surroundings, taking the form of an epidemic.
The lackadaisical attitude of the government is also one of the principal reasons for the present crisis. In one of his addresses at the university at Nauni, the horticulture minister of the state said that the department is not just restricted to one crop i.e. apples – a fruit which dominates politics in just seven constituencies of the state (there are 68 in all), it (state government) has to take into consideration other areas which do not grow apple. This is factually incorrect. The economic survey also pointed out that the predominant crop in the state is apple. It even matters politically. The bottom line is that this statement exhibits the attitude of the government towards the problems faced by apple growers.
The cheaper fungicides which used to be provided by the government were not available this year, and poor and marginal farmers could not afford medicines from the open market. There is a huge difference between the prices of fungicides procured from the horticulture department and those sourced from the market. The medicines procured from the market are almost 60% dearer than those purchased from the horticulture department. For example, a fungicide called Z-78 is sprayed in the apple orchards; half a kilogram of the fungicide costs about Rs 330 in the open market, whereas the same was provided at nearly Rs 150 by the horticulture department. The quantity mentioned would suffice for not more than 20 trees. However, the non availability of these medicines in the department of horticulture forced the farmers to either abandon spraying of these medicines, or procure it at exorbitant rates.
The newer generation of farmers have a tendency to become victims to market forces. Instead of using conventional wisdom and following the horticulture department’s protocol, they rely more on market principles and guidelines. The apple region is full of agents of multinational corporations who sell medicines and other agricultural equipment. These agents did not even have a clue about apple scab, and were thus following principles designed by their corporate heads based in other parts of the world, whose job it is to ensure that their medicines and other agricultural equipment get purchased.
Zero budget farming, as professed by the former Governor Acharya Devvrat, has increased the vulnerability of the apple farmers. Termed pseudo-science by scientists, they were targeted by the governor of Himachal Pradesh and forced to promote zero budget farming. The process involved the use of cow urine and gur chana as fertilizers; these scientists were subsequently targeted in many forums by the governor himself.
The scientists called the method fraudulent and said that using gur and chana as fertilisers would increase the pathogens in the field. The most scathing attack came from Professor Vijay Thakur, who asked where the zero-budget farming was now. He said that it came from “no science or logic”, mentioning that it was a membership campaign run by organisers through government departments. Saying that the state spends Rs 25 crore on gobar and gau mutra, he said that the “rowdyism” of the former governor compelled the state to provide a budget for it. “It is more surprising how Rs 1 crore is spent on a five-day lectureship on gobar and gau mutra held between June 29 and July 3, 2019 by Nauni University,” he added.
As pointed out earlier, more than Rs 25 crore was spent on ‘zero budget farming’ by the state of Himachal Pradesh due to the diktat of the former governor Acharya Devvrat. In the guise of zero budget farming, the government withdrew from its role of intervening in different layers of farming operations.
The spray schedule is of utmost importance to control the spread of apple scab. The spray schedule is listed on the website of the horticulture department but in its absence, also with the non-identification of the disease, a market driven spraying pattern and the zero budget environment built by the government, the farmers were badly affected.
The epidemic of apple scab is looming large in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The government has to start working on a war footing to ensure that its intervention is prompt, consultations with scientists are regular and that it dumps the pseudo-scientific zero budget farming concept, which it still harps on. If not, the apple scab epidemic may affect more livelihoods in the state than the COVID-19 pandemic.
The writer is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla. The views are personal.